Post-Arab Spring Letdown: Tunisia as the Sick Man of North Africa

Written by | Monday, February 3rd, 2020

More than three months after parliamentary and presidential elections, Tunisia still has no government. The leader of the Parti Socialiste Destourien Libre, Abir Moussa, made a scathing attack on those who had run Tunisia since the fall of the North African country’s long-time strongman Ben Ali. Many Tunisians openly regret the former president today. The fractured nature of politics are reminiscent of the French Fourth Republic (1945-1958) which ended when General de Gaulle came to power in a soft coup d’état. The economy meanwhile continues to drift. Foreign indebtedness rises inexorably, so does corruption. When he was appointed prime minister four years ago, Youssef Chahed gave the impression he was a reformist. But he soon gave up, notably where reforming the justice system and fighting corruption are concerned.

Individually some ministers and judges have tried to clean up the Augean stables but to no avail. The transparency organization I Watch has actively sought to promote public investigation into alleged cases of corruption but it is funded from abroad which makes the task of understanding why some of the corruption cases it brings to the courts go forward and others are held back remains clouded in mystery. Like the alleged financing of political parties by Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia or Turkey, the interference of foreign organizations or governments in Tunisian politics raises important questions about the soundness of Tunisian democracy and “free” elections. What is the real influence of such interventions? Who is really in charge? Conspiracy theories flourish in the murky atmosphere which passes as political life in North Africa’s smallest nation.

To present Tunisia today, nine years after the fall of Ben Ali in January 2011, as a model of political democracy is as laughable as to have presented the country as an economic model in the Arab world prior to 2011. A chorus of Western donors were only too happy indulge in this game before 2011, but today some of Tunisia’s foreign partners are more cautious. Last summer the EU ambassador, Patrice Bergamini, put his finger on the problem by publicly criticizing “certain family groups that have no interest in young Tunisian operators breaking through”. He was criticised by Tunisian politicians but reminding North Africa’s smallest country, which is increasingly dependent of financial flows from western and international donors was salutary.

Conservative estimates suggest that more than one third of the country’s GDP is informal, which explains why arrangements between individuals, industrialists and governments largely escape the cold light of truth. Local media have neither the means nor, when they belong to wealthy individuals, the desire to speak the truth and engage in serious debate. Describing economic and social reality is no easy task as real economic power is discreet. Some large private groups benefit from the links forged over the decades with a plethora of administration officials whose claim to fame is to have created an undergrowth of rules that stifle wealth creation. None of these networks or habits changed after 2011. New actors such as senior members of Ennahda and other new political parties simply joined the system and milk it in traditional fashion. If Tunisia survives it can thank the men and women from Tunisia’s remarkably resilient middle and lower classes who work hard, enjoy no privileges, whose names are unknown outside their immediate surroundings.

The challenge facing the next government is to speak the naked and uncomfortable economic truth to the people. The state has been unable to free up resources for investment. Combating the marginalization of the eastern and southern hinterland, poverty and corruption, and the increasing dilapidation of certain public services such as hospitals, requires public investment. However, government investment has been halved since 2010, from 13.5% of GDP to 5.9% this year. The figures of the Investment Promotion Agency attest to the steady decline in productive investments. Industrial sites close every month, some industrialists pack their bags and head directly to Morocco. Tunisia lost 94 production units last year, including 62 sites that are industrial. The industrial sector contributed 30% of GDP before 2011, a percentage that fell to less than 25% for the first six months of 2019. It is not surprising that the creation of new jobs continues to fall. Contrary to appearances, the much vaunted tourism sector may well be contributing negatively to GDP.

Meanwhile, parties, large and small, share an economic cake that has grown very slowly since 2011, and have been unable to present an economic recovery plan. As a result, many Tunisians are seeing their standard of living fall: 40% survive on a monthly income of 500 dinars, 35% on 500-1000 dinars, 10% on 1000-1500 dinars, 5% on 1500-2500 dinars and 3% on more than 2500 dinars. However, living in Tunisia today on 15 or 25 dinars ($5-8) a day as a majority of the population is obliged to do is simply impossible. These figures come from the World Bank, but there is some evidence that the organization has underestimated the poverty rate in Arab countries for decades. Whatever government eventually emerges, whether technocratic or political, it will face very strong economic, financial, social and regional headwinds: financially, the Tunisia’s ‘emperor’ has no clothes.

To this is added the barely disguised contempt of many Tunisian elites for country folk, the country bumpkins or aroubis from the interior. These elites are more at ease at dinners at the French Embassy in La Marsa than in Le Kef or Gafsa, cities where they have often never set foot. Their children often hold French passports and frequently work abroad. The road to democracy is long and arduous: whether the Tunisian political elites have the wit, the ambition, the sheer vision to move ahead boldly is far from clear. If the muddling through with growing corruption and unsustainable levels of foreign debt continues unchecked, the risk of a much bloodier rising than nine years ago looms.

‘Tunisia is the Sick Man of North Africa’ – Opinion by Francis Ghilès – Barcelona Centre for International Affairs / CIDOB.

The Opinion can be downloaded here

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